Anti-Taliban Resistance Struggles for Relevance in Afghanistan
After initially attempting to launch an insurgency against the Taliban following the its conquest of Kabul in August, Ahmad Massoud, the son of the legendary anti-Soviet mujahideen leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, and deposed Vice President of Afghanistan, Amrullah Saleh, reportedly fled to Tajikistan (news18.com, October 12). Massoud, who studied at the Franco-Afghan Lycée Esteqlal and maintains close ties to France, is now seeking France’s international and Tajikistan’s regional backing. Massoud, for example, wrote a public letter to French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy requesting that Lévy appeal to French President Emmanuel Macron to continue supporting the anti-Taliban resistance and called France the “last hope” of the anti-Taliban resistance (lejdd.fr, August 14). Massoud’s National Resistance Front of Afghanistan has also registered to lobby the U.S. government to become “the protector of America’s 20-year investment in Afghanistan and the force to rid the country of intolerance and terrorism (Axios, October 28).”
Tajikistan appears willing to host Massoud’s anti-Taliban resistance. However, part of the resistance’s required ‘low profile’ involves not conducting cross-border attacks into Afghanistan, which, if occurred, would likely need to receive at least tacit backing from Central Asia’s major geopolitical power, Russia. Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rahmon, meanwhile, appears to be taking advantage of the situation in Afghanistan to portray himself as both a defender of ethnic Afghan Tajiks from the “Pashtun” Taliban and of Tajikistan itself from Islamist militants in neighboring Afghanistan, which has improved Rahmon’s popularity domestically (france24.com, April 10).
Without any military force on the ground, Massoud’s efforts within Afghanistan are confined to diplomatic negotiations with the Taliban. However, in mid-October Tajikistan was willing to host talks between Massoud and the Taliban, but, unsurprisingly, the Taliban did not send any representatives (rferl.org, October 13). Pakistan has nonetheless appeared to take on the role of promising Tajikistan that it will work to bring Afghans, including Pashtuns, Tajiks, and other minorities, together (tribune.com.pk, September 18). As a result, Tajikistan would have no need to support an anti-Taliban resistance, such as Massoud’s, to protect Afghan Tajiks.
If there were any other potential lifeline for the anti-Taliban resistance, it would ironically be Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP). Although ISKP’s harsh vision of sharia law stands in full contradiction to Massoud’s promotion of democracy and religious tolerance, ISKP’s own insurgency against the Taliban is picking up pace and disrupting the Taliban’s efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and establish full control of the country (Terrorism Monitor, October 20). Should the Taliban become mired in its own counter-insurgency against ISKP, it will have diminished resources and legitimacy, which could provide an opening for Massoud’s anti-Taliban resistance to reconstitute itself in areas where support for the Taliban is relatively weak, such as Panjshir or Badakhshan, the latter of which borders Tajikistan.
A remaining question would be whether any foreign countries would offer Massoud’s loyalists any military support, clandestine or otherwise, to make the Taliban wage a counter-insurgency on two fronts: against ISKP and Massoud’s loyalists. Moreover, while Massoud’s anti-Taliban resistance and ISKP would never become former allies, supporters of the former in France have acknowledged that ISKP has a number of Tajik fighters, and that both see the Taliban as their enemy and want revenge against the Taliban (Twitter.com/@AL_HAQo, October 4). The anti-Taliban resistance and ISKP therefore will not cooperate, but the success of one could ultimately lead to greater success of the other vis-à-vis the Taliban.
Islamic State in Khorasan Province’s Insurgency Against the Taliban Consolidates in Nangarhar and Beyond
Although the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP)’s newest primary enemy is the Taliban, the group continues to settle scores against its old enemy: the former U.S.-backed Afghan government and its allies. Abdul Rahman Mawin, for example, was a human rights activist from Laghman who had been working in Jalalabad city, Nangarhar Province until his assassination on October 12 while driving his car (aa.com.tr, October 12). ISKP soon after claimed the assassination, accusing Mawin of being loyal to the now deposed Afghan government (Twitter.com/@natsecjeff, October 13).
Killings in Nangarhar, similar to that of Mawin’s, have become commonplace as the province spirals into increasing violence. Just before his assassination, a woman was found shot to death in Nangarhar and an ISKP judge was assassinated, with the former presumably by ISKP for violating its sharia codes and the latter presumably by the Taliban (pajhwok.com, October 11). The tit-for-tat violence between ISKP and the Taliban had been escalating in Nangarhar, including an ISKP roadside bombing that killed Qari Fayaz, who was the deputy district governor for Nagarhar’s Rodat District (Twitter.com/@AfghanAnalyst2, October 9). The following day Taliban social media accounts indicated that a 500-strong Taliban force would be deployed to Nangarhar to combat ISKP (Twitter.com/@AfghanAnalyst2, October 10). Despite this, ISKP attacks against the Taliban continued, including with ISKP assassinating a Taliban “intelligence officer” in Jalalabad, Nangarhar on October 30 (Twitter.com/@Natsecjeff, October 30).
The escalating conflict in Nangarhar between ISKP and the Taliban comes amid the Taliban’s announcement that it will not cooperate with the U.S. to counter ISKP (thehindu.com, October 9). Nevertheless, the Taliban is proving incapable of containing ISKP in Nangarhar. For example, from mid-September to mid-October, ISKP had conducted nearly 30 attacks in Nangarhar, with virtually all directed against the Taliban with the exception of Mawin, which represents an expansion to attacking civilians as well (Twitter.com/@abdsayedd, October 13). In an ironic twist, the Taliban, which had once made U.S. soldiers fearful of venturing out in Afghan towns, has itself now ordered fighters to not go out once it becomes dark in Nangarhar ostensibly for fear of ISKP ambushes (Twitter.com/@sahibzadaPTM, October 11).
Beyond Nangarhar, ISKP is also challenging the Taliban more broadly with its narratives. ISKP, for example, claimed a suicide bombing at a mosque in Kunduz, northern Afghanistan on October 8, which killed more than 40 people (aljazeera.com, October 8). The attacker was a Uighur from China, and ISKP pointed out in its claim that the Taliban was cooperating with China (opindia.com, October 9). Not only did this attack expose the Taliban’s duplicity for allying with Uighur jihadists’ enemy in the Chinese government and demonstrate that ISKP could attack the Taliban from Nangarhar, to Kabul, to Kunduz, but it also undermined the Taliban’s claim that it could protect Afghan minorities, such as Shias, who worshipped at that mosque in Kunduz. ISKP’s subsequent attack on another Shia Mosque in the Taliban’s heartland of Kandahar on October 15, which killed around 60 people, only further served to undermine the Taliban’s narrative of securing Afghanistan and even its home city (aljazeera.com, October 16).
ISKP’s attacks against the Taliban in Nangarhar and against minorities and civilians elsewhere in Afghanistan are revealing that Taliban control over Afghanistan remains tenuous. The Taliban is likely to face a growing insurgency from ISKP due to the Taliban’s diplomacy with countries like China and its embracing of ‘infidel’ Shia minorities as fellow Afghans. These developments will become the ideological fodder for ISKP to accuse the Taliban itself of becoming just another ‘infidel’ occupier similar to the accusations used by the Taliban against the United States during its stay in Afghanistan. ISKP will try to capitalize off these efforts by using its sophisticated social media apparatus to message these claims, photographs, and videos. This could be sufficient for ISKP to recruit more extremist defectors away from the Taliban, and will certainly weaken the Taliban’s anti-ISKP insurgency in Nangarhar and beyond.